Friday, 24 March 2023
Johnson on Planet Z?
I watched most of ex-PM Johnson’s “appearance” before the Commons Privileges Committee, mostly because it was an historic occasion (as far as I know it has never happened to any other ex-PM), and a little bit because I wanted to see this former Eton Schoolboy whose report said of him that “he thinks the ordinary rules don’t apply to him” finally get his comeuppance. One thing is clear: if he honestly, really , truly, “on my heart” didn’t realise that the parties did not observe the rules his government was laying down for everyone else, than he isn’t fit to be responsible for feeding the Downing Street cat, never mind governing the country. However, that is not what the Committee must decide but rather: “Were his lies inadvertent?, negligent?” The wonder is that it will take another week or two for the Committee to publish their findings. The rest of the world must be laughing their socks off. Here’s a well-tried aphorism to help the Committee: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck then it probably is a duck. Apart from the effrontery of denying what he obviously knew, there are two other aspects of the “evidence” which show his lack of empathy with his fellow citizens. 1. He implied throughout that the Downing Street Staff were entitled to some leeway because they “ worked very hard under considerable pressure." Probably true. So did millions of others: NHS staff struggling with life and death issues without adequate resources and protection because the government had failed to prepare for the predicted pandemic and implement the recommendations of the Cygnus Exercise conducted only a few years previously, while his own party were in power. Ditto care home staff. Ditto, to a lesser extent, the education services, the hospitality industry , emergency services and delivery drivers. 2. He argued again and again that these parties were “leaving dos” and were therefore “essential” work events. Most of us change jobs several times in our careers. I suspect very few people these days stay in the same job from day one to retirement. So leaving a job is by no means a unique lifetime event. I have done it eight times, (to clarify, have carried on doing the same job, teaching, but at different schools and institutions.) I’ve had to think very hard to recall what, if anything, marked my leaving each one. After four years in my first appointment I think I got a mention from the Headmaster in Assembly. (We still started each day with a story a hymn and a prayer in those days). After three years in the next, a small primary school, the staff bought me an LP record. It was of the Huddersfield Choral Society singing Haydn’s “Creation.” It conains the chorus "Achieved is the glorous work," which I arrogantly thought apt, but whether or not they did is another matter. The next one, after six years, I organised myself in the pub at the bottom of the school hill. This was very much a farewell “do” as my next job was at the other side of the world in Papua New Guinea. Against some of their jokey expectations I survived. I can’t remember anything about the other five. My final “retirement” was a bit of a damp squib because they weren’t sure whether or not they would “need me” the following school year. It may well be that some of the “leaving dos” in Downing Street marked the end of long and distinguished careers, but I have the impression that most marked the end of short-term stints. Contrast Downing street’s laxity with the rules pertaining to, and rigorously observed, in the highly significant “leaving dos” we all experience in our lifetimes: the funerals of our relatives and friends, very often dearly loved grandparents, parents, partners, siblings, contacts and colleagues. At some no relatives or friends were allowed at all. At others numbers were strictly limited, social distancing had to be observed both during the ceremony and traveling to and from the funeral, and relaxed socially gatherings after the ceremony to reminisce about the “dear departed” simply didn’t happen. We simply went home, often alone. Against this austere but necessary approach, which Johnson emphasised time and gain from his podium, the indulgence of the Downing Street trivialities is crass and insensitive. Johnson simply doesn’t understand: he is not fit for office.
Monday, 20 March 2023
It's parliament that's on trial.
Johnson before the Privileges Committee It is a measure to which British politics has sunk that the media seem to believe that there is at lest a possibility that our ex Prime Minister Johnson might be exonerated by the House of Commons Privileges Committee when he appears before them on Wednesday to claim that he did not knowingly lie to the Commons when he said that that “all lockdown rules were observed” in Downing Street when the series of “Partygate “ events was held. What is at stake is far more than Johnsons reputation, which is soiled beyond repair in the eyes of most of us. It is that of parliament itself. If the committee of seven MPs, four Tories, two Labour and one SNP do not find Johnston guilty of lying, preferably unanimously but at least by a majority, and recommend a sufficiently severe sanction, then our claim to be a liberal democracy is beschmisched. Mr Johnson’s supporters tell the media, and they dutifully report, that he is confident he will receive a clean bill of health. This could be true, as he appears to be a master of self deception. However Andrew Rawlinson in yesterday's Observer (19/03/2300) details the history that shows the facts do not support the claim of confidence. Briefly they are: 1) While still Prime Minister, Johnson did his best to block the reference to the Privileges Committee; 2) When this ploy failed No 10 delayed for months submitting to the Committee the evidence (What’s App records etc) it had requested; 3) By persisting with its requests, the Committee was accused of conducting a “witch hunt”; 4) When the written evidence was eventually produced, it was redacted to such as extent as to be almost meaningless; 5) The Metropolitan Police, after their own investigation, issued 126 fines for breakages of the law, including one to Johnson; 6) When the civil servant Sue Gray was known to have accepted a post with the Labour Party, her report, which had been hailed as impartial, fair and factual, including by Johnson himself, wqas and is now claimed to be biased and unreliable. Mr johnson's presence at several paries is sevidenced by photographs. If ever there was an “open and shut” case, this must be it. Any claim that Johnson “did not know” that he was there, or that it was a "party" is risible. But Johnson has a reputation of being like a “greased piglet.” His attempts to wriggle free could provide material for our satirists for years to come - a fitting end to a “beyond awful” career in politics. We must hope.
Thursday, 16 March 2023
A "nothing changes" budget
The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, finished his speech on an upbeat note: “Inflation down, debt falling, growth up.” Well, that’s certainly world-beating perception management. It’s all true, but fails to mention that inflation at the end of the year will still be at 2.9%, nearly half as much again as the 2% target level, [government] debt is predicted to fall, but will still be 30% above the acceptable level, and growth, at a predicted 0.2%, is the lowest in the G7 and a tiny fraction of the 3% the politicians would like to see. It is hard to see how the budget is likey to do anything to make the UK a happier place. We have three major social/economic problems in Britain, inequality, poverty and low productivity. The budget does little or nothing to alleviate any of them. In fact, inequality and poverty are likely to become worse Our level of inequality is unacceptable because it is so demonstratively unfair. People on average incomes and below, however comfortable in absolute terms their lifestyles might be, cannot be expected to be satisfied with their lot if the people at the top are creaming off shedloads. Examples abound. According to figures in last November’s “Prospect” magazine Lloyds Banking Group pays its CEO £8.9m a year, 255 times the average pay (£28, 005) of the lower quartile of employees. For Greggs its £2m, 98 time £19, 824. In 2022 the UK the median household (not individual, household) income was £32 300. An income sufficient to allow them to increase their annual pension pot contribution from £40 000 to £60 000, as permitted by this budget, would be beyond their wildest dreams in a different world. While assisting the well-off to become even better off, the budget does little or nothing to reduce the levels of poverty of which this rich country should be deeply ashamed. The cruel bedroom tax persists, as does the cutting off of benefits to the third and any subsequent children. Benefits, already inadequate, will receive only below-inflation increases. About 1 in 5 households are forced to exist below the poverty line (eg having to chose between eating and heating), over 4m children live in poverty, more than half of them in households where at least one parent is in work. Although the UK is a rich country (still sixth in the world) we would be even richer if, instead of stagnating, our economy grew at the same rate as comparable countries. The budget attempts to tackle the problem by increasing the number of workers. The availability of child care is to be vastly extended in the hope of tempting more parents into paid employment. Hence, the economy gets two for the price of one. Every sixth-former who studies economics learns that if a householder does his/her own cleaning or car repairs nothing is added to GDP. However if he/she employs a cleaner or a garage, then the cleaner’s or mechanic’s wages are added to GDP, which therefore grows. The additional child-care employee’s wages are added to GDP as are the wages of the former home-maker if he/she takes to opportunity to go out for paid employment, or, in this day and age, works from home without the distraction of keeping an eye on toddler. Surely this is the wrong tack? We have enough “stuff” and there’s enough to satisfy everyone if we leaned to share it properly. What would improve our quality of life is more leisure, more family time (including nurturing the children), more enjoying friendships, more walking in the countryside, more playing games,more time to appreciate the wonders of the world we live in. Not more work, but more productive work in less time. To achieve this we need investment. The budget’s exemption from tax for profits invested may achieve this, but what we really need is a change in the culture: to encourage those with spare money to use it for long-term investment rather that a short-term pitch in the markets.
Monday, 13 March 2023
It is unfortunate that most of the media’s reporting of the banning of Gary Lineker from the BBC has centred around his allusion to the “language used by Germany in the 1930s” rather than his actual description of the government’s policy on asylum seekers as: “Beyond awful. . . an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people.” This has enabled Tory mouthpieces to distract attention from the actual policy and criticism by cries of foul, unfair, a gross exaggeration etc.” Tory perception management never misses an opportunity. It is hugely encouraging that the “sporting fraternity and sorority” have massed around Mr Lineker in support and the BBC has been forced to abandon its flagship sports programme in its usual form. Well done to them for for standing up for common decency when our politicians haven’t dared. I hope that when the fuss has died down it is the description of the policy which stays in the public mind rather than the distraction of Germany. Gary Lineker has done us a favour. In thirteen years of mean, selfish and incompetent government encompassing the bedroom tax, the cut in overseas aid, the “test and trace” shambles, government procurement via a VIP line of "mates," the illegal prorogation of parliament, and “partygate,” to name but some, we critics have exhausted our lexicon of descriptions: unbelievable, shambolic, bizarre, beyond belief, incomprehensible, cruel, inhumane .. . . So thanks, Mr Lineker, for another string to our bow. I hope “beyond awful” will in future be prefixed to every mention of this Conservative government, and their trademark populist policies, until they are ousted. Maybe it will even live on in history. To help foreign correspondents, in the languages in which I have a smattering “beyond awful” is , in French “ au delà d’horrible”; German, “überaus schrecklich”; Italian “oltre terribile;” Chichewa,” kupitirira zoopsa” and neo- Melanesian, ” long hap nogut.”
Wednesday, 8 March 2023
Four cheers for Gary Lineker (and none for the BBC)
“The Church sleeps on. It sleeps on while 60 000 people are moved from their homes in the interest of a fantastic racial theory: it sleeps on while plans are made (and implemented) to transform the education of Africans into a thing called “Native Education” - which will erect a permanent barrier against Western culture reaching the African at all: it sleeps on while a dictatorship is swiftly being created over all Native Affairs in the Union, so that speech and movement and association are no longer free... In God’s name. Cannot the Church bestir itself all over the world and act? Cannot Christians everywhere show their distress in practical ways by so isolating South Africa from contact with all civilised communities that she realises the position and feels some pain in it? “ That is a quotation from a famous article by the celebrated Anti-apartheid priest and Mirfield Father Trevor Huddleston in the Observer in 1954. The frustration Huddleston expressed about the Churches’ indifference to the evils of Apartheid mirrors the frustration we Liberals and liberals are experiencing about the indifference today’s British public appear to feel about the callousness of our current government , and in particular its inhumane and probably illegal policy towards immigrants and asylum seekers. How can it be that a quarter of us are still prepared to vote for them and, allegedly, their policy towards migrants has 55% approval? Sone weeks ago in "The New European" Will Self gave this as an explanation: (I paraphrase). Political anoraks (such as me) are a minority. Most people don’t think much about politics, except perhaps at election time, when they vote on a “general impression.” In between-times their concerns don’t move much beyond “their minor ailments, sex and the price of petrol.” I do not believe this is said in a patronising way, given that I presume “the price of petrol” is a shorthand for the struggle to make ends meet, and I know that our respective minor aliments form a large part of every conversation I have with my contemporaries. As today’s pitiful display in the Punch and Judy performance which passes for Prime Minister’s Questions Time illustrates, the major parties are too terrified to raise their standards on behalf of the migrants. Sunak claims to speak “on behalf of the British people” (twice) to “implement the British people’s priority;” Starmer highlights the failure of the various policies so far after 13 years in power, but offers no alternatives (establish legal and safe ways to get here, even booths saying “welcome to Britain,” and have a department large enough to “process” them as rapidly as possible so that they can get on with boosting our economy and earning my pension); and Ed Davey avoids the issue altogether by choosing to highlight ambulance delays. This is why the intervention of the former star footballer and current presenter of “Match of the Day” Gary Lineker is greatly to be welcomed. The “non-anoraks” know about him, listen to him, and trust him. And, because his job does not depend on it (or it shouldn’t ) he is prepared to be frank rather than emulate the politicians’ circumlocutory evasions. His opinion: “Good heavens [this policy] is beyond awful.” yes indeed. The facts: “There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries” (Germany, 164,925; France, 112 860; UK, 74 750 over the same most recent period.) Another opinion: “This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used in Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order.” Note that he’s talking about the language, not the actions. And he’s not the first one to point out that senior Tories are using inflammatory language, which is very successfully inflaming the situation. Perhaps that's what they intend. Lineker’s intervention should be welcomed, not censored. He joins with honour one of his successors as a famous footballer, Marcus Rashford, whose intervention obtained school meals in the holidays for those entitled to them in term time. If our politicians are too cowardly to lead, then it is important for others with decent views to fill the gap, and those in the limelight have a special responsibility.
Tuesday, 7 March 2023
Yet another toxic Brexit "freedom."
An earlier post describes how our government has used our Brexit-acquired “freedom” from EU regulations to postpone the EU requirement to stop polluting all (sic) our rivers and water resources by 2027, to the later date of 2063 (yes, forty years later, rather than four), and then only 75% of them rather than all. Now, announced last month, we are to use our "freedom" to suspend the EU’s ban on the use of neonicotinoids, an insecticide used in agriculture. These insecticides are apparently toxic to bees. Experts (of whom some members of the Tory party have “had enough”) tell us that bees play a vital function in preserving and maintaining the ecological system on which we all depend. Indeed, the worst-case scenario claims that without bees life as we know it would not exist. You can read about the importance of bees, and other threats to them caused by climate change and intensive farming, here. So, with casual indifference, our government has decided to ignore the dangers to future generations for short-term gains to the UKs sugar-beet growers, who find neonicotinoids useful in protecting their crops. It is worth noting that, until we joined the Common Market, sugar beet was not a traditional home-grown product. We obtained our sugar from the Caribbean. However, the much derided Common Agricultural Policy ( CAP) gave substantial subsidies to the continental sugar-beet growers, so the UK’s farmers , quite naturally, jumped on the bandwagon. I find it shaming that, while the EU, for the sake of the future of the planet, sticks bravely to the neonicotinoids ban, the UK breaks ranks. Similarly, in regard to immigration and asylum seeking, our government appears to flaunt with pride its policy of sailing as closely as possible to the limits of international law, and possibly beyond them. Although we were never perfect, throughout my lifetime the UK has had the reputation of being a leading advocate and practitioner of of decency, compassion, intelligent pragmatism and respect for the law. The present government is daily tearing this reputation to shreds. >
Wednesday, 1 March 2023
Super Sunak? Well, maybe not quite yet.
Prime Minister Sunak's new "deal" with the EU on our trading relationships with Northern Ireland, artfully called the "Windsor Framework," is receiving plaudits all round (well, almost). The “adults” are back in control, is the general opinion. It remains to be seen whether the hard line Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland , and the hard-right so called European Research Group of Tories in the Westminster parliament, will be won over, and whether ex Prime Minister Johnson will feel he has enough support to lead opposition to it. This will take about a fortnight. If they all cave in Sunak’s image will be bathed in yet more sunshine and he may even begin to look more like a winner for the next election. Whether that happens or not, I hope the lasting legacy of his present triumph is that it has exposed the lies and deceit by which Johnson sold his far from “oven ready” Northern Ireland Protocol. One newspaper headline exposed the truth succinctly: “Brexit gets done – again (hopefully.) For the sake of all of us, and not just the people of Northern Ireland, I hope that the “Framework “ sticks, and indeed becomes the first step in “the long arduous process of undoing Brexit” as Rafael Behr puts in in today’s Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/mar/01/brexit-sunak-brexitism-agreement-protocol What I hope will eventually emerge is that all Sunak has achieved is the undoing of a tatty bit of tawdry deception engineered by probably the least competent ever of his predecessors – and something which he himself supported and so, as a senior member of the cabinet which approved it, bears a large measure of responsibility for it. What has received very little attention amidst the carefully choreographed “suspense” surrounding the release of this “Framework” is that Monday 27 February, marked the seventieth anniversary of the London Debt Agreement, signed in 1953. This genuinely landmark accord cancelled, without any reservations, half of Germany’s external debts. The other half was "restructured." You can see the details here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Agreement_on_German_External_Debts The reason was that the Western Allies, effectively in charge of the instructions to regulate international finace (IMF, World Bank and the GATT) realised that Marshall Aid was not enough, and that Germany could not become a viable democracy, market for the products of the rest of the world, and a bulwark against military aggression, whilst burdened with crippling debt. The anniversary serves as a reminder that: 1) external debt can be cancelled; 2) this does not lead to “moral hazard;” 3) debt cancelation enables countries to provide a humane standard of living for their citizens . . . .) and contribute to world economic development; 5) condescending terms such as “forgiveness” and “charity” need not be used; 6) private firms and individuals (eg Donald Trump) can go bankrupt, have their debts cancelled, and then “bounce back;” 7) there are 52 countries in the world burdened with unpayable debt and whose citizens are living in extreme poverty (eg where often more is spent on debt servicing than on health and education put together); 8) much of the debt is no longer held by the original lenders, but by “Vultures” who have bought it at a discount and are determined to extract every penny of their “investment.” You can find further and better particulars here. https://debtjustice.org.uk/ When the World banking system was in jeopardy after the 2008/9 crisis Mr Sunak’s distinguished predecessor Gordon Brown successfully organised the rest of the world to save the banks from their folly and the rest of us from destitution. Now, debt is a “world problem” worthy of Mr Sunak’s attention, if he has the will and genuine “pragmatic” skills. Will he rise to the challenge?
Friday, 24 February 2023
The truth of war.
Publicity about the prize-winning film version of “All Quiet on the Wester Front.” has prompted me to re-read Erich Remarque’s novel. Against the background of yet another modern, (even more) mechanised, war on European soil, it injects a frightening dose of reality which should temper the calls from both sides for a fight until “complete victory” is achieved. This is what the translator, Brian Murdoch, says about it in his “Afterword” published in 1994. “The novel shows us . . . war is not about heroism, but about terror, either waiting for death, or trying desperately to avoid it, even if it means killing a complete stranger to do so, about losing all human dignity and values, about becoming an automaton; it is not about falling bravely and nobly for one’s country (“he was killed instantly” was usually a lie), but about soiling oneself in terror under heavy shellfire, about losing a leg, crawling blinded in no man’s land, or (in those telling hospital scenes) being wounded in every conceivable part of the body.” Here are some of those “telling hospital scenes” “On the floor below us there are men with stomach and spinal wounds, men with head wounds and men with both legs or arms amputated. In the right-hand wing are men with wounds in the jaw, men who have been gassed and men wounded in the nose, ears or throat. In the left-hand wing are those who have been blinded and men who have been hit in the lungs or in the pelvis, in one of the joints, in the kidneys, in the testicles or in the stomach . . . It is only here that you realize all the different places where a man can be hit. Two me die of tetanus. Their skin becomes pale, their limbs stiffen, and at the end only their eyes remain alive – for a long time. . . Other men are in traction, with heavy weights pulling down at the end of the bed.. . I see wounds in the gut that are permanently full of matter.” (Pp243/4, 2011 large print edition, W F Howes, Ltd.) In the novel one of the 19 year old conscripts offers an alternative: “ . . . all declarations of war ought to be made into a kind of festival, with entrance tickets and music like they have at bullfights. Then the ministers and generals of the two countries would have to come into the ring, wearing boxing shorts, and armed with rubber truncheons, and have a go at each other. Whoever is left on his feet, his country is declared the winner.” (Ibid Pp38/8) From what we hear, I suspect President Zelenskiy would be up for this. But Johnson, he of the belligerent speeches but who hid in a freezer to avoid reporters? Fortunately, to counteract the belligerent rhetoric generated by most of our politicians to “celebrate” this first anniversary of the Ukraine war, some commentators are looking for the realistic compromises which will be necessary to bring it to an end. Martin Kettle in Wednesday’s Guardian, writes that: “The last thing that is needed is a crushing victors’ peace that makes Russians believe they and their children are being punished for losing. Magnanimity in victory always makes far better sense.” The Archbishop of Canterbury’s article in today’s Telegraph” is under the headline: "Russia must not be crushed in any Ukraine peace deal." Unfortunately Gordon Brown in today’s Guardian insists that “Putin and his henchmen” should be brought to face justice before an international tribunal for brutally invading another country. He doesn’t suggest submitting himself, Tony Blair, or G W Bush.
Tuesday, 21 February 2023
The hypocrisy surrounding the current debates on world politics continues to beggar belief. Heaven only knows what future historians will make of it (if there as a future for humankind, that is). The US Secretary of State (I think it was) sternly orders China not to supply arms to the Russians (on pain of what isn’t clear.) Why on earth shouldn't they? We (ie the US, Nato, the West, the Free World, whatever we like to call ourselves) proudly send arms to the Ukrainians, whom we consider to be, for the time being at any rate, on "our " side. So why shouldn't the Communist Chinese supply arms to their fellow(ish) communist comrades. I am not arguing that I want them to: I certainly don't. I am pointing out the illogicality of the threat. Similarly, Mr Sunak (I think it was), presumably to bolster his belligerence credentials to match those of ex-P.M. Johnson, declares it to be outrageous in our modern age for one country to invade the sovereign territory of another. Quite right too, except that "we" however defined, have been doing that regularly for the past 70+ years. Korea, Vietnam ( to his credit British Prime Minister Harold Wilson kept us out of that one), Iraq, Afghanistan, even poor little Grenada. What’s sauce for the goose. . . There are calls for President Putin to be tried for war crimes, but a succession of US presidents and other western leaders, including our own Tony Blair, remain honoured world statesmen. President Zelenskiy and the Ukrainian army are regarded as heroic freedom fighters defending their territory. Yet when a group of Palestinians fire rockets into Israeli territory in protest the against a group whom they consider to have stolen their land from them, and undoubtedly treats them abominably, they are decried as terrorists. Both President Biden and President Putin are to make speeches today. Both, I suspect, are likely to contain belligerent rhetoric likely to prolong the situation, and maybe take us nearer to nuclear war. I have no idea how we are going to extract ourselves from the present horrendous situation, in which an increasing number of innocent people, mostly young conscripts with little or no choice, are going to lose their lives or be seriously maimed. I earnestly hope that, behind the scenes, diplomats on both sides are searching for the compromises which will bring the slaughter to an end. And when that happens, I hope we shall look to creating a "brave new world" that is somewhat fairer and more even-handed than the post 1945 one has been so far.
Tuesday, 7 February 2023
Trukey, Syria and Truss
The appalling tragedy of the earthquake(s) in Turkey and Syria, in which close to 5 000 people have died, serves as a sharp remainder of how lucky we are to live in our cosy and comfortable island. True some of us are occasionally upset by floods (which our lifestyles are helping to create) and strong winds, but otherwise, by and large and in the main, and except for unavoidable illness, the only obstacle to our all living a cosy and comfortable life is our inability to organise ourselves sensibly. The re-emergence of Liz Truss and the seriousness which some of our media are treating her fantasy economic policies illustrates how the only real difficulties we face are of our own creation. M/s Truss’s policies are based on two ideas: one is false and the other is foolish. The false idea is that high taxation is holding back our prosperity. The evidence for this is glaringly absent: we are not a highly taxed country. Here are the latest figures I can find for the percentage of GDP taken by governments in tax in some comparable countries. France (46.2%) Italy (42.4%) Greece (39.4%) Germany (37.5%) UK (33.3%) US (27.1%) A full list can be seen here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_by_tax_revenue_to_GDP_ratio Whatever it is that is holding back our prosperity, it is not high taxation. In fact there is ample scope for increasing the tax take so as to properly fund the NHS, social services, care services, education, local government and all the other public services which, as the present crises show, are currently stripped to the bone and beyond. To claim that “there isn’t the money,” and the attempt at the “grown up” disguise that “difficult decisions have to be made” is pure mendacity. Yet the media will repeat it, against all the evidence. And too many people will be taken in. We bring our inadequacy on ourselves. M/s Truss’s second tenet, that we, as a nation, are held back by too much regulation, is foolishness (or blindness) beyond belief. After the misery to the nation as a whole caused by the banking crash of 2008/9, the Grenfell Tower fire, the pollution of our rivers with untreated sewage, to give but three examples, the message is that we need not just regulation, but adequately resourced supervision and enforcement of regulation, to protect our lifestyles. So, as we as individuals and as a society do what we can the alleviate the misery of those suffering acute distress through unavoidable natural causes in Turkey and Syria, for goodness sake let us “count our blessing” and distriute our ample resources equitably to provide a cosy and comfortable life for us all.
Thursday, 2 February 2023
To be fair. . .
I remember from years ago a competition, or maybe in was just a string of letters in the paper, to devise a motto for al the British to use instead of “Honi soit qui mal y pense” which was taken to apply just to the upper classes, or even only the royal family. The favourite which emerged was “Mustn’t Grumble.”. Given the mass strikes of the past few weeks, and scheduled to continue, that could hardly apply today. I suggest “To be fair…” as the contemporary alternative. I believe it is neither Brexit, nor the government’s manifest incompetence, nor inflation, nor even sleaze, which is the root cause of our disatisfaction, but a profound sense of unfairness. For years many of us have been have been disgusted by the government’s contemptuous treatment of our citizens at the bottom of the pile: the disabled, those on benefits, asylum-seekers and migrants, but this has not seeped through into mass demonstrations. Now the relatively comfortable lower middle classes – teachers, nurses, fire and rescue workers, civil servants, engine drivers et al are flexing the muscle that the poorest lack. They are not being treated fairly. Some of the wages allegedly earned by some in these groups, in the region of £40 000 a year, seem to suggest a fairly comfortable standard of living, though I concede the problem young people starting their careers have in buying houses, while we who already own one sit back smugly as our asset accumulates in value. But why should this supposedly “squeezed” middle put up with a falling standard of living, however comfortable, while those at the top are publicly raking in shedloads? Former prime minister Johnson is a prized and much publicised example. As prime minister he received a salary of £164 000, along with two rent free houses, yet he still needed access to a loan of £800 000 to fund his lifestyle. Since being ousted from No 10 he is still receiving his £84 000 a year MP’s salary and has received payments in the millions simply for giving speeches. Even Mrs May gets paid in thousands for a single speech, and has access to over £100 000 a year for life to fund her “office” (as do Sirs Tony Blair and John Major, and Messrs Gordon Brown and Johnson, and possibly even M/sTruss for her 44 day stint. All this is out of the public purse, from which the powers that be argue it is not possible to pay nurses etc a salary to keep up with inflation. But what our politicians take out of the national cake pales into insignificance compared with the millions and sometimes tens of millions which the heads of major industries pay themselves each year in what they are pleased to call their “compensation.” For a brief period during the lockdown months of the pandemic we recognised that it was not he hedge-fund managers and captains of what is left of industry who took the risks and kept the country going, but largely those at the bottom end of the pay rates: the nurses, teachers, refuse collectors, firefighters, post workers and parcel deliverers.. Some of those who now resist paying them properly turned out on Thursday evenings to applaud them. Now the crisis has passed (we hope) and their contribution to our civilised life is downgraded. I suspect the government’s strategy may well be that if they remain obdurate for long enough it will be possible once again to describe these valued citizens as “the enemy within.” Britain is a profoundly unfair society. The progressive parties need to band together to recognise this have the courage to promise to make it fairer. To be fair, this is not an easy ask. The Tories and their supportive press will be quick to trot out the cliché of the “politics of envy,” the fallacy of the “trickle down effect” and the myth of “plucky Britons” waiting to be unleased by the hope of riches. That is why we need courageous political leadership to “tell it like it is.”
Friday, 27 January 2023
Holocaust Memorial Day 2023
From Primo Levi's "The Truce." After his abandonment in the concentration camp, accompanied by "a Greek," and walking towards Cracow, Levi spends the night in a barracks "requisitioned by the Russians and full of Italian soldiers." Levi writes: [The Greek] told curious stories about the war; of how after the Germans had broken through the front he had found himself with six of his men ransacking the first floor of a bombed and abandoned villa, searching for provisions; he had heard suspicious noises on the floor below, had cautiously climbed down the stairs with his sten gun at the ready, and had met an Italian sergeant who, with six soldiers, was doing exactly the same thing on the ground floor. The Italian in turn had levelled his gun but the Greek had pointed out that in those conditions a gun fight would have been particularly stupid, that they all found themselves, Greeks and Italians, in the same boat and that he did not see why they should not make a small separate and local peace and continue their researches in their respective occupied territories - to which proposal the Italian had rapidly agreed." Levi continues: "For me too he was a revelation. I knew that he was nothing but a rogue, a merchant, expert in deceit and lacking in scruples, selfish and cold; yet I felt blossom out in him, encouraged by the sympathy of the audience, a warmth, an unsuspected humanity, singular but genuine, rich with promise." I suspect that something has gone slightly awry in the translation with that "blossom out" but I dearly wish some similar humanity could prevail between the unfortunate young conscripts of Russia and Ukraine, and between the politicians fuelling the conflict. I'm not convinced that the promise of Western tanks will make such an outbreak of humanity more likely or happen any sooner
Saturday, 14 January 2023
Trade unions: co-ercion or cooperation (version2)
A friend has very kindly reformatted the previous post and corrected the many typos and spelling errors. Let's see if the published version will retain these improvements. Friday, 13 January 2023 Trade unions: coercion or co-operation? Since the 1980s, the days of the Thatcher governments and trade unions as "the enemy within, " there has been a plethora of legislation designed to restrict the ability of trade unions to make their case. • Sympathy strikes (aka secondary action), have been outlawed and the right to picket restricted: • Unions are no longer permitted to strike on the decision the executive committee, or a show of hands, but a ballot in support has been required; • since 1984 (an interesting year in coercive history) the ballots have had to be postal, so very expensive for the union to organise; a simple majority in such a ballot is not sufficient - the turnout must be at least 50% and at least 40% of the total membership must have voted in favour;* • Unions have been required to give at least 7 days notice of the intention to strike (it may now be 14); employers have the right to seek an injunction if they can show that not all the correct procedures have been followed; • the unions' immunity from being sued over lost trade or profits resulting from a strike, established by the overturning of the Taff Vale Judgement by the Liberal government of 1906, has been reduced; • if a union wishes to have a political fund to support a party it must gain approval from the membership via a ballot (this one has backfired on the Tories - more unions now have political funds which contribute to the Labour Party than before the act. Sadly there is no provision for the membership to stipulate which party, so we Liberal Democrats still get nothing); • the internal rules and procedures of each union are subject to supervision by an external body set up by the government. The latest coercive move, introduced into parliament this week, is to try to legislate that during strikes "key services" must maintain "minimum service levels." This is a totally unnecessary, and potentially counter-productive, move because they already do. The International Labour Organisation (I.L.O) of which the UK is a founder member, has customs which provide for this. In the darkest days of the Miners' Strike the pits were kept operational, air-flows were maintained, and safety and security procedures continued. During the current NHS dispute the nurses continue to perform emergency work, and the Ambulance and Fire and Rescue services continue to respond to "life and limb" calls. As in Europe, these arrangements are made at local level, as far as I know amicably, and taking into account local requirements. The Government's Bill, which probably contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights (nothing to do with the EU and of which the UK is a founder and still a signatory) would enable the government bullies to blunder in, determine conditions, unilaterally declare them to have been breached - and them what? Sack the workers involved and leave, say, the health and education services shorter of key operatives than they already are? Clearly the aim of the legislation is not to try to resolve the current disputes or to protect the public, but twofold: to persuade Tory Party members that the government is stiffened with the Thatcherite determination that so many of them admire: and in the hope that the voting public will fail to read between the lines and turn against the strikers, and therefore the Labour party, and towards a government fighting to look after them. It has been a Liberal/Liberal Democrat tenet for all the years I've been a member that employment relations should not be a battleground but an area of co-operation. Rather that further conflict between capital and labour (if those two concepts still have relevance) we need structures to encourage employers and employees to work together, such as employee representation on boards and, where appropriate, a sharing of the profits. *Just to spell this out, this means that, on a 50% turnout, there needs to be a vote in favour of 80% for a strike to be valid. The Brixit referendum would not have reached the threshold required of a union vote because only 37% of those entitled to vote chose Leave. There's one law for some things and another for others.
Friday, 13 January 2023
Trade unions: coercion or co-operation?
Since the 1980s, the days of the Thatcher governments and trade unions as "the enemy within, " there has been a plethora of legislation designed to restrict the ability of trade unions to make their case. Sympathy strikes (aka secondary action), have been outlawed; the right to picket restricted; Unions are no longer permtted to strike on the decision the executive committee, or a show of hands, but a ballot in suport has been required; since 1984 (an interesting year in co-ercive history) the ballots have had to be postal, so very expensive for the union to organise; a simple majority in such a ballot is not sufficient - the turnout must be at least 50% and at least 40% of the total membership must have voted in favour;* Unions have been required to give at least 7 days notice of the inention to stirke (it may now be 14); employers have the right to seek an injunctio if they can show that not all the correct procedures have been flollowed; the unions' immunity from being sued over lost trade or profits resuting from a srike, establised by the overturning of the Taff Vale Judgemnt by the Liberal government of 1906, has been reduced; if a union wishes to have a political fund to support a party it must gain apporval from the membership via a ballot (this one has backfired on the Tories - more unions now have polical funds which contribute to the Labour Party than before the act. Sadly there is no provison for the membership to stipulate which party, so we Liberal Democrats stillget nothing); the internal rules and procedures of each union are subject to supervision by an external body set up by the government. The latest co-ercive move, introduced into parliament this week, is to try to legislate that during strikes "key services" must maintain "minimum service levels." This is a totally unnecessary, and potentially counter-productive, move becasue they already do. The Interantional Labour Orgaisation (ILO) of which the UK is a founder member, has customs which provide for this. In the darkest days of the Miners' Strike the pits were kept operational, airlfows were maintained, and safety and security procedures coninued. During the current NHS disput the nurses continue to perform emergency work, and the Ambulance and Fire and Rescue services continue te respond to "life and limb" calls. As in Europe, these arrangements are made at local level, as far as I know amicably, and taking into acount local requiremts. The Government's Bill, which probably contravenes the Euroean Convention on Human Rights (nothing to do with the EU and of which the UK is a founder and still a signatory) would enable the government bullies to blunder in, determine conditions, unilaterally declare them to have been breached - and them what? Sack the workers involved and leave, say, the health and education services shorter of key operatives than they already are? Clarly the aim of the legislation is not to try to resolve the current disputes or to protect the public, but twofold: to persudae Tory Party members that the goverment is stiffened with the Thatcherite determiation that so many of them admire: and in the hope that the voting public will fail to read bewteen the lines and turn against the stikers, and therefore the Labour party, and towards a governmet fighting to look after them. It has been a Liberal/Liberal Democrat tenet for all the years I've been a member that employment relations should not be a battleground but an area of co-operation. Rather that further conflict betwen capital and labour (if those two concepts still have relevence) we need structures to encouage employers and employees to work together, such as employee representation on boards and, where appropriate, a sharing of the profits. * Just to spell this out, this maans tha, on a 50% trunout, there needs to be a vote in favour of 80% for a strike to be valid. The Brixit referendum would not have reached the threshopd required of a union vote becasue amoy 37% of those entiteld to vote chose Leave. Tthere's one law for some things and another for others.
Monday, 9 January 2023
Both Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, and Sir Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, have given us upbeat speeches to enliven our New Year. Mr Sunak has made five promises, to: Halve infaltion; Grow the economy; Reduce debt; Cut Health Service waiting lists; Stop small boats carrying asylum seekers and migrants across the Channel. Sir Keir Starmer is less specific, but is promising to allow local areas to "Take Back Control" (clever choice of slogan) by devolving power to them. Mr Sunak's list of promises is pretty vacuous. The rate of inflation, currently 10%, is predicted to halve anyway. It is a typical piece of political perception management that the current high rate is claimed to be entirely due to the war between Russia and Ukraine, but halving it will be claimed as a government achievement. It is criminal that, nearly 14 years after the Sustainable Develpment Comission's "Prosperity without Growth" report was published (Marh 2009) our major plolitcal parties are still looking to growth which wil fry the planet to solve our short-term problems. When I first heard "reducing debt" as an aim I presumed this was private debt - possibly by raising wages to avoid people over-borrowing on their credit cards. Apperntly it's govenment debt, which is not a short-term problem, especially as aditional governent expenditure will be needed to bring the public services up to scratch after 13 years of governemnt austerity to facilitate tax cuts. This leads us on to cutting health service waiting lists, which wil need both immediate expenditue to pay health workers fairly and discourage them from leaving, along with serious long-term investment to provide an adequate service for an ageing population. Finally boats full of migrants making dangerous Channel crossings could be stopped within a fortnight if adequate alternative legal provisions were made. As for Sir Keir's vague promises, devolution of powers to local areas is long overdue but the devil will lie in the detail of how it's done. If it's to national paliaments and regional assemblies elected by proportinal representation and with powers to raise funds and the right to spend them as they wish, with Whitehall and Westminster limited to foreign policy. defence, the mainenance of the currency, and redistribution of "LEVELLING UP" funds well and good. If it is to flamboyant mayors elected by First Past the Post, based on city regions and needing to spend half their time on putting in bids to all- poweerful London, then not so good. We shall see. Fortuantely for us, (and mybe unfunately for Sir Keir, who sees advantages in remaining vague) Michael Jacobs, professor of political economy at Sheffiled university, has combed Labour's policy promises and collated an encourageing list of good intentions. The full article can be found in the Guardian on line at 04/01/23. In summary, there's a resonable chance that a Labour government will: spend £28bn on climate change action this decade; achieve a net zero power generation system by 2030; drive a 10 year energy efficiency programme to insulate homes and buildings; use a "Brexit opportunity" to direct government porcurement to UK companies (I'm not too happy about this one); establish a national wealth fund; introduce sginificalnt economic devolution (see Sir Kier's aspirations above); tax wealth equally with income; abolish non-dom status - this with the one above would raise £26bn a year in additional tax revenues; raise the minimum wage to a real living wage; increase workers' rights and protection, incuding banning zero-hours contacts; negotiate fair pay agreements with employers and trade unions; bring rail operations back into public ownership when their franchises expire. All the above sounds exciting. Presumablky Sir Keir hopes we won't notice. Although both New Year speeches seem equally unispiring, Andrew Rawnslkey in yesterday's Observer summed up his conclusions as follows: "At heart, Mr Sunak is a low-tax, small-government, light-regulation Tory. That is his desired direction of travel. His default view about the state is that it should get out of the way. Tellingly, his one thought about addressing the crisis in the NHS is that more health care should be provided by the private sector." "At heart, Sir Keir believes in a large and activist government, with the levels of taxation implied by that, though he prefers to talk about an “agile state” to make it sound more attractive to the wary."
Thursday, 5 January 2023
What the young should learn
Yesterday our Prime Minsiter, Rishi Sunak anounced five priorities for the remainder of his premiership. For some strange reason the pre-announcement for the speech (now called a "teaser" I believe,) didn't mention any of the five priorities, but concentrated on his apparent determination for all students to study mathematics up to the age of 18. The reason why his PR departement decided on this tactic excapes me. However, since almost everyone has had an education of sorts, everyone thinks they are experts on it and most hold strong opinions, so it could be a useful distraction. Most people, in their "expert" opinion, believe that the young should learn what they learned. In my own father's case this included the abilty to recite the rivers of Yorkshire in order from north to south. As I could never do this (geography was not and is not my strong point) he never regarded me as properly educated. I've discovered when using this illustration when speaking to Roary Clubs, that many of his generation take the same view. Mr Sanak atended a posh public school and probably received a highly academic education which incuded both Classics and mathemenatics. Towards the end of my full-time teaching career I was fortunate to attend a course for teachers who were teaching some maths but whose principal qualifications were in other subjects. The course director pointed out that unitl twenty years ago (forty now) there was one subject which was regarded as absolutely essential to develop rational thinking and an orderly and enquiritng mind. That was Latin and "Look what has happened to that." The nessage I took to mean is that there is nothing super-duper wonderful about the study of mehamatics which will spill over into more fulfilling, responsible and useful lives. We need to think very carefully about what mathematics we are teaching and why. The primary purpose of education is not to prepare the young to be prductive workers, but to "open windows:" - to introduce the youhg to all the wonderful things the world has to offer, in literature, art, mathematics, music, engineering, physics, biology, history, geography, languages, performing arts or what you will. Some will taste, decide it's not for them and move on. Most, we hope, will find at least something to get exceited about and enjoyment from. For some it will be mathematics. They will just love artihetic, delight in geometrical relationships, and enjoy discovering unknowns through algebra. These enthusiasts will go on to higher things. Those needing nathematics to suport their interest in other areas (carpentry for example, or astro-physics) will learn to manipulate what is necessary. Others will find maths eithr a bore or a mystery or paossibly both. What mathematics is necessary to live a functionig life as a citizen? There is little point in plodding through painstaking methods of calcualting manually what can be done in a flash by a machine. For expample, I was taught how to calulate a square root using an algorithm similar to long division. So were most of my generation. There is litle point in attenpting it now that the result can be found by the press of a button on even the chapest of calulatiors. If you'e curious you can find how to do it here: https://www.onlinemath4all.com/square-root-by-long-division-method.html The essential tool for moderern citizenship is a thorough understanding of basic statisices. For example, when the rate of infation falls will prices stop rising? (No they won't). The average pay for nurses is said to be around £34 000 a year, which seems to me to be quite a good screw, but what is the median pay that the middle group get, or the modal pay that most get? Those don't seem to be reported. When Mr Sunak in his Chancellor of the Exchequer days increased employees' National Insurance Contributions from 12% to 13.25% was that a rise of a mere 1.25% or over 10%? This and the many related statistics bandied about by politicians are the mathematics with which all citizens should be familier. If this is what Mr Sunak has in mind I'm all in favour.
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